Old Habits Are Hard to Break

A retired English teacher of my acquaintance and lineage pointed out to me carefully at lunch the other day that she had found a grammatical mistake in an earlier post of mine. She was sure, she said, there must be some further point of usage of which she was unaware, but she wanted nonetheless to bring the whole affair to my attention. She made it clear, though, that had she had her red pencil….

There is in grammatical work something called a solecism, what Merriam-Webster defines as “an ungrammatical combination of words in a sentence,” and what other authorities call “an intrusion of an unaccepted form into standard speech” (Evans and Evans), “any word or combination of words deviating from the idiom of the language or from the rules of syntax” (House and Harman), and simply an “irregularity” (Yelland)—what the rest of us know to call a mistake. If there is a difference between a solecism and an outright mistake, it could lie, arguably, in whether the writer was aware of what he was doing: a mistake made on purpose, in other words, is not a mistake. But since that would fly in the face of yet another definition of the solecism, a blunder, let’s call and settle what I wrote as a mistake.

My blunder involved using a plural verb with the pronoun each. In a (now-corrected) recent post entitled What’s What?, I wrote: Each of these principal verbs, know and did, are transitive. The pronoun each is singular by definition, and since it is standing in this sentence as the subject of the clause, its verb, of course, should be singular as well—is, not are. My ear was misled (my ear, you understand, not I) by the intervening plural noun verbs, which is the object of the preposition of and which has nothing whatever to do with determining the number of the verb. I got it correct both in the sentence immediately preceding this one (Each of the two sentences we are looking at begins with an independent clause) and in the sentence following (They each need an object to complete their meaning). This latter sentence, conveniently enough, illustrates a special use of the same pronoun: when each is not the subject of a clause but modifies a plural subject (the subject they in the clause they each need), then, in fact, it requires its verb to be plural. In such a construction, the pronoun functions as an appositive, an element which amplifies the meaning of another word and is regarded as assuming the same grammatical identity as its referent: they is the plural subject of the clause, and so, therefore, is the pronoun each, which refers to it.

Could all this be of less importance in a world of sweltering summers and civic strife? Yes, because the topic really is not whether the indefinite pronoun each should be used with a singular or plural verb; it’s that the basic rules of grammar, this one among them, keep the road clear for our ideas to come across smoothly and accurately to the reader. All those many obligations of usage and style, just like the rudiments of any art, are meant to serve a higher purpose than arbitrary etiquette. The art of writing is a complex undertaking, because what we see in the world and want to write about is usually so much greater than the sentences we first compose to communicate our thoughts and feelings. Yet it is just those very thoughts and feelings which, if we try to make them known as we know them, can ultimately keep us close to humanity, both our own and the humanity we share in common with others. Because to be human is to be intelligent.

The point of an art, whether the art of writing or any other, is first to make something known to someone else to this purpose of common understanding. To communicate means to share, but we have to share according to the way the medium we are using to communicate works. If we try too often to work in a way all our own, not troubling over the basic rules of operation, we run the risk of dulling our perceptions or muddling our thoughts, both of which are exactly counter to what we want to achieve—for we write because we want to be understood. Do some cheat? Do some write to deceive? Of course, but that only strengthens the argument for understanding the rules of writing, for many of those requirements assure clear thinking, and can help us ask the questions that will reveal a charlatan.

There is, moreover, much to be said about thinking of art as a game, something we undertake for the delight of it. But a game is not a game, ironically, if it is not played seriously, according to the rules. What is difficult about the game of writing is that the rules can appear at times so minute that we think they’re merely arbitrary. Sometimes they are, and we should get those rules off the books. But at other times it’s up to us, players of writing, to understand the reasons behind the rules that have been established over time so that we can win and claim a victory not over someone else, but over ignorance—which means nothing more than not knowing. And knowing is always better.


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